Wire-tapping Wars: The World of Official Espionage

Before the Southern Weekly crisis broke out last month, one of the paper’s sister publications, the magazine Southern People Weekly, published a scathing exposé on the secret world of spying and backstabbing endemic throughout Chinese officialdom. Aside from revelations about Bo Xilai bugging calls with president Hu Jintao, there has been little available information about surveillance inside the Party.

The December article narrates the adventures of Qi Hong, an ex-wire-tapping detective who was so busy debugging the offices of various Chinese officials, he once dismantled 40 hidden wires and cameras in a single week.

The piece is no longer available from Southern People Weekly online.

CDT’s Mengyu Dong has translated the entire article:

Wire-tapping with Chinese Characteristics

Qi Hong grabbed a handrail on a crowded Beijing subway, exposing a deep scar. Others on the train took notice and immediately moved away. The scar was from 23 years ago. Although he had became used to people’s stares after all these years, it nonetheless evoked in him a sense of utter helplessness. He can’t explain what happened to other people. Just like countless other life experiences, this story started with ideals but ended with absurdity.

Qi Hong, about 185 centimeters tall, always appears very stern and alert when not speaking. But when he does speak, one can feel the intensity of his thoughts. I knew about him through a news report published on the front page of Southern Weekly. In the report, he revealed that Daocheng Company (which claimed to be “the third party between the doctor and patient”) bullied their patients, deceived the public, and allegedly committed other illegal acts.

“It’s not ‘revealing’–it’s simply telling the truth,” Qi Hong corrected me. I spent a few days chatting with Qi Hong in a city in Shandong Province. Much of the content of our conversations cannot be told to you at this time. Right now, I just want to tell you that he dismantled more than 300 pieces of wiretapping and video equipment from the cars, offices and bedrooms of over 100 government officials. This happened in 2011.

Wiretapping as Common Practice

The man’s legs went soft and he collapsed to the floor, speechless for a long time–Qi Hong clearly remembers the reaction of the government official when he dismantled a piece of eavesdropping equipment for the first time. He didn’t expect such a reaction. Even more unexpectedly, he started to gain a name for himself among officialdom.

Personal connections are like passing permits. One after another, officials approached him, through acquaintances, to have him look for and dismantle eavesdropping equipment and hidden cameras. They found Qi Hong either because they wanted to be on the safe side, or because they had already sensed something unusual–for example, their wives became aware of their secret whereabouts, or their leaders had given away some “hints” in their speeches. During his busiest week, Qi Hong dismantled over 40 eavesdropping wires.

This whole amazing experience started at a dinner party, during which an official from Shanxi divulged that “wire-tapping was a common practice among officials.” Officials commonly used spying equipment to eavesdrop on each other and gain the upper hand on their rivals in order to ascend from #2 to #1 at the office.

“Nowadays, we hug each other when we meet, taking the opportunity to feel around for spying equipment. Important conversations take place in bath houses,” the Shanxi official said. This astounded everyone at the dinner party. In the areas around Shandong, this was unheard of. People could just not be trusted, they emphatically sighed.

Qi Hong contemplated further. “What consequences will it bring if public servants collect secret info on their colleagues?” He told his friends, “I want to check your security. Let me figure out how to do it. You just wait.” A few days later, he found a set of detective equipment.

Starting out, he conducted his detective work within his circle of friends. “Focal point” persons were his priority, like this one, a mid-level, high profile cadre that had authority over examination and licensing.

“What if my private life is discovered, and my wife doesn’t let me back in the house?” this mid-level cadre joked when Qi Hong proposed helping him look for eavesdropping equipment. But he wasn’t laughing shortly afterwards, when two wires and one pinhole camera were discovered hidden in the air conditioner in his office.

“He gazed straight at the ceiling, and his face immediately turned deathly pale.” Two or three hours later, he regained consciousness and told Qi Hong that the apparatuses couldn’t have been set up by family. But the mistress was “quite adept at scheming.”

After calming down, he set about dealing with the situation. Over the course of the following week, he frequently visited and sent gifts to his superiors. Finally, he got the “suggestion” he sought–a certain deputy head was deemed exceedingly competent and was therefore transferred to a more challenging post. He name was suddenly cleared as he ordered his deputy head to leave.

Very Worried

The spying equipment Qi Hong discovered for his friends was installed by wives, lovers, colleagues, and political rivals. After finding the first 20 or 30 wires and secret cameras, Qi Hong couldn’t help but think: When friends get together, they speak their opinions, comment on politics, and express their shared disgust towards corruption. But what is their image like back in their offices? How do they become one of the “corrupted”?

Initially, he was curious to understand officialdom in China and pry into a different side of human nature. But as he gradually delved deeper into their private worlds, things became unexpectedly awkward.

He mentioned a friend, a bureau-level official, who had always been a decent, eloquent, and insightful man–as he put it, “like a state leader.” During one particular chat, this person said, in a rather tongue-in-cheek way, “Why don’t you check me out and see if I am a good cadre?”

Subsequently, there came a series of turning points. As it turned out, Qi Hong really did find plug-in-style wires in his car. He then saw an extremely distorted face. “Suddenly, it looked like his skin became wrinkled, as if he was radiated by a sudden nuclear explosion.” 20 days later, the friend came to Qi Hong and said, sternly, “I admit, I have two mistresses. I will call off the relationships immediately!”

But why did he specifically confess to Qi Hong? I think Qi Hong also had this embarrassing question in mind. On other occasions, people exclaimed to him, “Damn it! I didn’t take graft!” Others pretended to be calm. But Qi Hong isn’t stupid. He immediately thought, “Why are you reacting so slowly, and why is your expression suddenly so dazed?”

As for that “decent” friend, Qi Hong only remembers feeling embarrassed as he replied, “This is your personal life. If the mistresses make you feel wonderful or full of passion, you can still continue. You can even forget that you ever had a friend like me.” Qi Hong sighed, adding, “That is his freedom,” and continued to tell the story of another bureau chief.

Unlike the former one, this bureau chief swiftly accepted the result,  asserting that the mistress set up the wire. Afterwards, he decisively called off the relationship with her.

“Repulsive.” Bringing up this incident once again, the bureau chief still gnashed his teeth. Having heard so much about how many other officials fell due to their affairs, he even started to be suspicious of his mistress’s background. “Could she be have been planted at my side by someone? Was anyone using her?” Depression and uneasiness haunted him for a long time.

Since the incident with that bureau chief, Qi Hong has witnessed much, much more. Some officials cursed and called people dirty, back-stabbing dogs. Others had heart attacks, worrying day and night… Qi Hong would rush to the hospital and see them laying there, looking pathetic. But Qi Hong couldn’t ask questions of his own accord. Neither could he persuade them to act a certain way. Nobody wanted to broach the problem.

What about those lucky officials who ended up not being wire-tapped? Were they relieved? No! They were very much worried as well, suspicious day and night–could it be that the equipment used to inspect their offices was not advanced enough?

“Should I tell him?” Qi Hong gradually struggled more and more with his conscience as he continued to detect wires and hidden cameras. “If I don’t tell them, what paths will they go down in the future? I don’t want to see miserable things happen. If I do tell them, seeing so many terrible expressions, people becoming sick or just staying silent, I need to comfort them. But I can’t say anything comforting. I can’t just say: What did you do? Confess. Donate your assets.”

Some even eye Qi Hong with suspicion. You offer to test our offices for us… Could you have some ulterior motives yourself? Eh?

No Control of One’s Destiny

Inevitably, “miserable things” happened. A week after Qi Hong discovered one wire, a friend of his (a director at a state-owned capital management office) was detained and interrogated for alleged bribe-taking.

According to Qi Hong’s description, this director was very principled. He treated others with kindness and hated owing money or favors to people. He was the kind of person who would rush to pay the bill after a meal. Qi Hong proposed to help him inspect his office because “it would have been difficult for him to be in cahoots with evil forces, and he presided over a crucial position. Many forces, including his superiors, found it hard to gain interest through him.”

At the time, Qi Hong told him, “You have a great tendency to be viewed as a dangerous dissident, a stumbling block for interest groups.” With regards to the warning, the director merely restated the importance of “principles.”

However, in spite of this reaction, when he saw the wire dismantled by Qi Hong from behind the table lamp in his office, he fell silent.

“Not rage, but silence,” Qi Hong said with an air of thorough understanding of this world–lost, yet indifferent. He thought a great deal about the deeper meaning behind the director’s reaction– until he met him again.

By then, the director was already in jail. “I only took money once, and got into trouble!” He asserted with anger and resentment that the wire-tapping was a scheme and the bribery a trap. The purpose was to get rid of him!

Everything is irreversible. During that meeting at the jail, Qi Hong found out the director was sacked just one week after Qi Hong dismantled the wire. The reason why the director took the bribe, Qi Hong said, was because he could not handle the pressure caused by being in constant discord with his bureau chief. Both those above and below him could “work” smoothly only if he was more in lockstep with the chief. Because of this, the director was regretful–not for taking bribes, but because “it would have been better if I went corrupt much earlier, together with them. In this way, it’s hard to say if I would be sacked or not, because everyone would cover for each other,” the director said.

For a long time, Qi Hong was greatly affected by this. But later, he discovered that this director’s situation was no isolated incident. Another upright man in his eyes–the principal of a university–was also wire-tapped. Out of all of these miserable cases, the principal was the only one who kept calm (but Qi Hong suspected that he might just be a good actor). The principal merely chuckled and said, “Who would have done this to me? Is the Party testing me? Or are my colleagues observing me?”

“Who was using this stuff on him? What was the purpose? If a man like him is sacked and another group of people ascended to power, what would become of the work unit? If such tactics become commonplace in the professional lives of officials, how will it affect their mentality? Will this restrain them and make them perform better, or just make them slier? If this dark force were to come from officialdom, what consequences will it bring?”

Qi Hong didn’t get answers to these questions before he found out that wire-tapping and secret filming were not necessarily from rivals or “dark forces.” Even if a given group of officials were proverbially all in the same boat, they still had to test each other to ensure the security and stability of their collective interests.

“After an apparatus is discovered, the official will immediately check to see if it was installed by the Committee of Discipline Inspection and inform their partners to seek collective security and protection,” Qi Hong said. The next official he mentioned reacted in a similar way to most. After the spying equipment for him was discovered, he tried his best to keep calm and analyze the different chains of interest with which he was involved, consulting with all kinds of channels to determine the origin of the threat.

“Just like a kid who committed some wrongdoings and is afraid of the consequences, he had to ingratiate himself. He immediately turned modest.” After a series of discussions and meticulous investigation, the official involved with this case determined the wire came from colleagues who were taking “preventative measures.” This ultimately strengthened their “sense of loyalty” between them and solidified their alliance.

“No worries–it was from our own side,” the official said when he met again with Qi Hong. By that time, the official’s life was back to normal. Qi Hong saw him and his colleagues having a meal together happily.

Officials, no matter what, would argue in defense of themselves. Most of them lament that they do not control their own destinies. Qi Hong gave the following rough narrative as an example:

“People like me undoubtedly have no serious problems at work. But you know, how could it be possible to not have some minor issues? Nowadays, how could someone be so strict at the workplace? People give you some gifts, then give you a little money for your birthday. Under these circumstances, how could you say ‘no’ to someone like Comrade Jiao Yulu did? It’s impossible. If you do so, it will probably affect your work. All I can say is that it is a kind of necessary socialization, a type of communication. Under the current situation, if you don’t conduct yourself in this way, how can you still be able to work?”

Responses

Most often, officials actively looked for ways to solve their problems. Through witnessing their responses, Qi Hong saw multiple aspects of human nature. Some people ended their underground lives and became more honest in their work; some people became more careful and strengthened their information security; some people requested to install spying equipment as a counterattack on their adversaries; some people realized the importance of forming alliances and sought protection; some people thought to “separate power” in order to strengthen their own troops; some people thought it might be better to find themselves an “agent”…

During one meal, Qi Hong heard a bureau chief say, “People are so jealous nowadays, installing wires and secret cameras. Perhaps there are people following me on my way to and from work. When I lay on my bed, perhaps someone is watching over me. How about I just relinquish my power? But you know, I am a bureau chief. It would be impractical for me to resign. It would affect the interest of the group and arrangements made from above. Things aren’t that simple. So what should we do? In order to reduce jealousy and attacks from others, I’ll divide my power so that nobody hates me anymore.”

“That would simply be self-disguise,” Qi Hong said. Everyone at the table sensed anger in his words. “Without power, how could you still be corrupt?”

As he dove deeper into detective work, Qi Hong started to become used to all of this. He established new standards to decide between right and wrong in order to differentiate the good people from the bad. He said, for those “obvious jerks,” he would resolutely refuse to help them check for wires. However, he’s made mistakes.

He once helped an official dismantle a wire inside a car. The person was unwilling to accept the fact he had been eavesdropped. “I’m an excellent member of the Communist Party. There’s no way this was set on me, because I never say anything that contradicts Party discipline,” he argued.

“Are you sure? Don’t be so conceited. I bet I can make you stop talking like this.” Qi Hong contended.

“Are you going to use a wire?” he asked in reply.

“I wouldn’t use such an elementary measure. I’ll record what you say in some private meeting and play it back to you someday. But you must not sue me. Let’s sign a deal. Do you dare?”

Seeing him roll his eyes and fall into silence, Qi Hong continued. “There are lots of things you don’t know. When it comes to this stuff, I know more than you do. It’s just like how you know more than I about intra-Party affairs, but you know less than me about other things.” Having heard this, the “excellent” official burst into laughter and said he was just joking.

Another bureau chief, after seeing a dismantled wire, stated lightheartedly, “That was set by my wife.” Qi Hong explained, “He thought he was so popular within his work unit that nobody would spy on him, because he was the one who convinced the whole work unit to become corrupt, and every member of his staff had already gained a lot from it.”

Qi Hong reminded him that the there were still laws in this country.

“In our work unit, I have the final say! What I say is the rule!”

In times like this, Qi Hong always feels a quickly-growing sense of utter disgust. Gradually, he totally lost interest in such issues. He once tried so hard for his friends to understand why they were being wire-tapped and secretly filmed. He also hoped to warn officials about this phenomenon before it was too late. But he could wait for those positive results no longer. When someone suggested he should turn this into a career, he chose to step down and gave away all of his detection equipment.

“This is such ridiculous phenomenon. I will do this ridiculous work no more. But I’m glad that I’ve seen all kinds of miserable and terrified reactions from these officials. There’s no need to examine them in-depth. Their facial expressions already tell it all,” Qi Hong said.

Via Southern People Weekly. Translation by Mengyu Dong.